Legislative leaders, law enforcement, churches question Cooper on church limits

N.C. Association of Police Chiefs letter to Cooper urges for "immediate" changes to order

Roy Cooper - Coronavirus, COVID-19, schools
April 24, 2020, Raleigh, N,C. - Democratic Governor Roy Cooper announces that the state's schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. Photo: NC Dept of Public Safety

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week he would allow some additional freedoms to North Carolinians by way of a new executive order after outcry over language in the current order restricted church services.

In phase one of Cooper’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, the governor says it is now safer for people to frequent more retail establishments. But, he says that indoor religious services are still not allowed unless it is “impossible” to have the services outside.

On Friday, 18 N.C. Senators sent Cooper a letter asking Cooper to clarify “what conditions make it ‘impossible’ for a worship service to take place outside.” The senators, all Republicans, said the clarification was needed so that citizens could exercise First Amendment rights “without fear of potential criminal penalties if they don’t reach the correct interpretation of ‘impossible.'”

Cooper has yet to respond publicly to the senators. However, in a letter to a church group, Cooper’s general counsel William C. McKinney said that “the decision to bring an enforcement action based on violation of the Governor’s Executive Orders is a decision for local law enforcement, including the District Attorney.”

Then on Friday afternoon, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association’s executive committee issued a resolution asking for Cooper to amend his newest Executive Order No. 138 to allow indoor worship services and to make any restrictions on churches be no more restrictive than limits placed on retail businesses.

The N.C. Chiefs of Police Association (CPA) also sent a letter on May 10 requesting additional clarification to Cooper. The letter notes that in executive order 138, the governor has “prohibited North Carolinians from congregating in “mass gatherings” of more than ten people in any confined indoor or outdoor space.”

The letter says the governor has “excluded worship services and other activities protected by the First Amendment from the definition of mass gatherings and permitted those activities to proceed.”

On behalf of our concerned constituents, we request immediate clarification of what conditions make it “impossible” for a worship service to take place outside so that our churches and faith organizations can make plans for the exercise of,” says the letter from CPA.

A group backed by a statewide coalition of churches announced Saturday they intend to sue Cooper over the limits on churches and assembly calling the limits unconstitutional.

The Cooper administration says the limits on religious activity are “generally applicable” and they “accommodate the fundamental rights and liberties of North Carolinians.”

A guidance document was issued by Cooper’s office that specifically covers the topics of “religious services and mass gathering restrictions.” The guidance document is not dated and claims that “some occurrences, including religious services, are exempted from the order’s definition of mass gathering.”

The guidance was sent to lawmakers on May 11 by Lee Lilley, Cooper’s director of legislative affairs. While this guidance is supposed to clarify the matter, it actually seems to contradict itself.

The guidance says there “is no limit” to the number of people who can attend outdoor worship so long as social distancing is employed or with no social distancing if congregants remain in their cars.

When it comes to indoor worship, the guidance says that there is a 10 person cap in a confined space and suggests using multiple event sessions, use of different rooms or online services. The indoor section then drops the 10 person cap if outdoor services are “not possible” and if none of the previous mentioned indoor distancing measures can be met.